Politics & Policy

Crying “Smoke” in a Crowded Theater

"R" you ready?

In the wake of a recent study which (cue bad pun) breathlessly warns that adolescents who see characters smoking on the silver screen are nearly three times more likely to start smoking, the usual suspects–Smoke Free Movies, Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids–are once again demanding that every film depicting smoking in a positive or even neutral light to be branded with an “R” rating. To do any less, they claim in a recent full-page ad in the New York Times, is to participate in the “knowing recruitment of multitudes of new young smokers.”

Reason’s Jacob Sullum has already penned a good take-down of the study, noting, among other things, that the survey of 6,500 10–to-14 year-olds it is based on “did not consider which came first, the movie viewing or the smoking, which you’d think would be a minimum requirement for drawing a causal inference.”

Then again, does anyone believe there was any way this National Cancer Institute-funded study would not have found a correlation between youth smoking and movies? Was the National Cancer Institute just going to say, “Hey, we checked it out, but it just wasn’t there. Bring back Joe Camel!”? Media-circus studies such as this always begin with the causal inference and work their way back to the evidence, which on examination here is not nearly as dramatic as the state attorney generals’ calling for studios to place free anti-smoking ads on DVDs.

Nevertheless, the report’s lead author, Dr. James Sargent has been going far beyond causal inferences in interviews.

“Let’s imagine a kid who’s a little insecure about their masculinity,” the Dartmouth professor told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “He sees Clint Eastwood, a very masculine actor, light up a cigarillo and that becomes part of his notion of what he wants to be. That changes him from being someone who’s against smoking, like most little kids before the third grade, to someone who sees it as something that might get them a little more toughness and masculinity. So they try it.”

Well, so long as we’re using our imaginations, what about the kids who potentially cracked their heads open and risked permanent damage to their spinal chords attempting head spins after seeing the Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo? Or ate ridiculously large fat-filled burgers glorified in the Nickelodeon movie Good Burger? Or decided to try their hand at dangerous motorbike jumping after seeing last year’s Motocross Kids? Han Solo no doubt seemed tough and masculine to many kids in Empire Strikes Back, mostly for driving like an idiot and mouthing off to guys with guns. And to think all of these are–tsk, tsk–PG-rated films. How has the republic survived?

Here’s the heart of the matter: The original Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings system was created as a response to a 1968 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld the rights of states and cities to keep certain books and films available to adults out of the purview of children. The “R” rating, as it stands today, warns parents that a film contains nudity, sexual situations, obscene language, or illegal-drug use, a fairly reasonable cultural demarcation line considering each of these acts in a public setting with children would be illegal. A 15-year-old who can’t get into a strip club, for example, shouldn’t be allowed in to see Striptease. (How Ashton Kutcher feels about this is anyone’s guess.)

Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth, smoking is simply not the same. Cigarettes are not an illegal product. Parents, leatherjacket clad mallrat rebels, older siblings, and teachers all can smoke in public, in front of children and do so without consequence. Further, smokers are not rare. Their natural habitat is everywhere. They have not been added to the endangered-species list. Thus, even if the MPAA were to cave on the issue, there is not a single child in America being protected from anything in a darkened theater that they will not be privy to on any sunlit street.

Since the average “R”-rated film does approximately half the gross of a PG-13 film, groups working to affect this change are engaged in a form of politically correct economic warfare, which is, of course, absolutely fine. However, when beginning such a fight one should have better weapons than a study of dubious reasoning, hyperbolic rhetoric unsubstantiated by said study, and battle cry of “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, We don’t like it so it’s got to go.”

Perhaps with friends in such high places, the anti-smoking lobby doesn’t need a solid argument. During congressional hearings with former MPAA president Jack Valenti last year on this issue, Sen. John Ensign (R., Nev.) announced, “We’re calling for personal restraint. We’re calling for personal responsibility,” which Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) quickly explained translated to, “If something isn’t done by the industry, something will be done by Congress.” Such is the state of individual rights and choice in America today when there is a bipartisan consensus on abridging them.

The blood, you see, has been in the water ever since the tobacco industry signed onto the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, effectively ending lawsuits pending against the industry by the states in exchange for a payout of more than $200 billion spread over 25 years and an agreement to fundamentally change the way it advertised its products. Considering what a public relations coup this was for all involved, it was foolish to believe it would end there.

So to get in front of cameras now and be heralded as the last standing bulwark between Evil Rich Men and Millions of Dead Kids, researchers and state attorney generals must stoke new fires to smoke out new enemies. Today it’s the movie industry. If they cave as the tobacco industry did, tomorrow it will be someone else.

The only thing left to be seen, then, is if crying “smoke” in a crowded theater will be met with scoff of derision or the easy accolades the new crusaders have become so accustomed to.

Shawn Macomber is a writer living in Boston...

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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